“Mo Gobnat from Muscraige Mitaine, i.e. a sharp-beaked nun,
Ernaide is the name of the place in which she is.
Or Gobnat of Bairnech in Món Mór in the south of Ireland,
and of the race of Conaire she is; a virgin of Conaire’s race”
Note to the Félire Óengusso, tr. Whitley Stokes, p. 73
I have a new place on my list of places that I’d love to visit ... so many of them are sacred places, and so many are in Ireland! This one fits both of those categories – Baile Bhúirne, also known as Balleyvourney, County Cork, where the statue, home, grave, and sacred well of Saint Gobnait still receive pilgrims and petitioners.
Saint Gobnait is the patroness of bees and bee keepers, and today, February 11, is her feast day! She’s also known by a few other names; Saint Gobnata, Gobnet, Gobeneta, Mo Gobnat, Abigail, Deborah.
It is believed that St. Gobnait was born around the 5th or 6th century. She fled family feuds at her home and found herself on the island Inis Oírr, where she received a divine message in the form of an angel. The angel told her to seek the place where she was meant to be, and she would know it by seeing nine white deer grazing there.
You can trace her travels by all of the places named after or dedicated to her memory. Inis Oírr has an early medieval oratory called Cill Ghobnait, there’s Dún Chaoin in West Kerry, and also St Debora’s Well in County Limerick. Gobnait spied the nine white deer grazing when she reached Baile Bhúirne and began her work with the help of the monastery under St. Abban who was already established there (Abban is also associated with bees).
While her focus was on pastoral work such as tending her hives, healing the sick, and founding a religious community for women, Saint Gobnait was not just a placid nun, oh no. Excavations of her home have found that she was also a metal worker, smithing and smelting. There are also legends of her setting swarms of bees on forces attempting to invade Balleyvourney, causing the swollen and stung invaders to return the cattle they stole before they fled.
Now, bees were more than just honey-makers to the ancient Irish – according to folklore, the soul of the body is said to leave as a butterfly or bee at the time of death. The honey, wax, pollen and other benefits of bees were considered so important that in the 7th century, someone scribed the ancient laws called the Bechbretha, which translates to ‘bee-judgements.’ These laws included six different terms in Gaeilge for the kinds of bee swarms, the proper ways to decide ownership of a swarm of bees, how to punish the theft of hives or honey, as well has how much honey a beekeeper should offer their neighbors and the Caithchi Bech, the trespassing of bees.
‘Tháinig na saighdúirí Gallda agus tógadar mórán stuic i mBaile Mhuirne, ach ar an slige dhóibh ag imeacht an bóthar soir do scaoil Naomh Gobnait na beacha as an mbeachaire. Tosnuigeadar ar na saighdúirí a chealg chun nar fágadar súil ná srón ionnta agus b’éigin dóibh an stuic fhágaint ’na ndiadh’.
[The English soldiers came and took a lot of stock in Ballyvourney, but on their way out the east road, Saint Gobnait released the bees from the bee-hive. They started to sting the soldiers until they were left without an eye or a nose and they were forced to leave the stuff behind them.](from The Bee, its Keeper and Produce, in Irish and other Folk Traditions)
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I'm not Catholic, nor have I visited Ireland, so please forgive me any errors here and feel free to give kind correction in the comments if you will!
(Image credit: Shrine of St. Gobnait, Buckeye Beth on Flickr. )